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Resurrected Hammer Films impresses with ‘Wake Wood’

Date: 1/23/2012

Jan. 23, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

Years and years ago, it was possible to make a very good guess what studio made a particular film just by watching it and looking at the credits — no peeking allowed at the studio logo.

Hints were in the form of the cast and crew, the look of the film and its subject matter. Fans of 1930s movies can tell you what the difference was between a film from Paramount and Warner Brothers, for instance. In the 1960s, it was easy to spot many films released by American International Pictures.

Hammer Films from Great Britain certainly had identifying markers. The studio excelled in period horror films from the late 1950s to its demise in the late 1970s. It launched the career of Sir Christopher Lee in roles such as Dracula and furthered the stardom of Sir Peter Cushing, who came to the studio as a significant television star.

Not every Hammer film was a gem, but it produced enduring classics such as “The Horror of Dracula,” “Kiss of the Vampires” and “The Devil’s Bride,” just to name three.

The art direction always made full use of its budget and the studio had talented, if under-appreciated, directors such as Terence Fisher. Hammer films were noted as well for their lush musical scores and a repertory company of character actors.

Hammer was one of the last studios to establish and maintain a style and one wonders if the new Hammer is going to do the same. Film fans around the world recognized the old Hammer brand.

I was one of those fans who knew that a film made by Hammer had a good chance of at least being an enjoyable throwaway film, if not something I’d want to see again.

A newly reconstituted Hammer — not unlike one of the creations Cushing labored over in his “Frankenstein” series — has reemerged and in the last two years has released several films with its newest production, “The Woman in Black,” starring Daniel Radcliffe about to hit American movie screens.

I certainly intend to see “The Woman in Black” next month and I recently received the DVD release of one of the studio’s new films, “Wake Wood.”

“Wake Wood,” would have broken the old Hammer mold if the previous studio bosses had considered making it. It’s a contemporary film set in Ireland with an appropriate use of bloody scenes but no sexual tease. It doesn’t star anyone associated with the horror genre, although the superb character actor Timothy Spall, who had a reoccurring role in the “Harry Potter” series, is prominent in the cast.

Nor is the film directed by someone with experience in the horror genre.

“Wake Wood” is the story of a married couple, Patrick (Aiden Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle), a veterinarian and a pharmacist, whose daughter is killed in a dog attack.

The couple is overwhelmed by grief and leave their urban home for the small bucolic village of Wake Wood to start over.

By accident they discover a secret: Wake Wood is the home of a group of pagans who perform a ritual that allows a dead family member to return to the living for three days. It is used to allow the grieving to say a final goodbye and find some peace.

Louise is desperate to see her daughter again and the couple agrees to take part in the ritual, but when their daughter Alice returns, there is something dreadfully wrong.

The script is, at least initially, pretty formulaic. Director David Keating tells the story in a competent straightforward manner with a sure hand on the shock sequences, but the story itself is predictable. It only starts to change gears a bit in the last third.

The conclusion is a surprise, although it violates the logic of the story.

A fairly effective film, especially if you’ve never read or heard of the story “The Monkey’s Paw,” “Wake Wood” falls into the category of enjoyable timewaster, rather than classic.

It will be interesting to see how this new Hammer builds its brand and if such a thing is possible in the motion picture industry of today.

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